I didn’t mind that my pant size would get at least two sizes bigger, I wanted to experience life in rural Italy and learn Italian before I died. So now, fitting in a snug size 7/8 is the price I had to pay to check that item off my bucket list, and it was so worth it.
There are certain cultures and languages that you just find yourself gravitating towards. For me, I was always inspired by French, partially because my last name is Franco and I always thought it would be perfect if I became a Franco-phone. That and my dad’s name is Pierre, despite being Brazilian – it was a no brainer. I pursued learning French at the first opportunity and took French in middle school at around 13 years old.
Believe it or not, I was one of the worst students in French because I was too busy passing notes to my classmates mocking how ridiculously proper our teacher’s outfits looked. She was definitely a TJ Maxxinista. Madame Gill and I had a hostile relationship because she too would make fun of how I dressed, for good reason; I was wearing miniskirts in the middle of Connecticut’s February to try to look fierce. No Jo, just no. Fashion police duties aside, I just never thrived in a classroom setting because memorizing verb conjugations didn’t exactly excite me.
So I barely passed language class in Middle School.
Then I got to high school and everything swerved in a different direction. I had this teacher, Monsieur Beshi, who was kind of balding, had a mole on his left nostril, and never, ever smiled. He was the reason why 90% of the French students transferred to the Spanish class with hip and fun Señora Andrea. For some reason, this tiny mean-looking man loved me, despite disliking everyone else, so I kept taking French.
Mr. Beshi wasn’t even French, he was an Albanian who lived in Connecticut and taught French, and then Italian.
My third year of high school, I was diggin’ my French street-cred, I was the go-to girl for all French questions and it all became too easy. I decided that I wanted to add on another language under my belt and in comes Italian.
Of course, my semi-conservative American high school only let you pick one foreign language, but I convinced the school system to let me take two back to back because screw the system. They approved my request and everyday for the next two years I would see Beshi for an hour of French, and then another hour of Italian.
Within the first semester, I knew I had a crush on this new romance language; I could feel the fluency coming. Sadly for me, that fluency never freaking came and I stopped taking language classes in college all together because I had a gut feeling that being a classroom would never give me the vocabulary knowledge I would need to actually communicate to real French and Italian people. And quite frankly, I was not down to pay nine THOUSAND dollars for a four-month long class where I’d be surrounded by chronic facebookers while a bland teacher blabbed in the background about what would we’d need to memorize for mid-terms; shout out to you American college education system.
Six years later and I managed to keep up with French when I studied abroad in Paris, but the only remnants from Italian are piles of beginner books, and a few levels of DuoLingo completed.
I had a “let’s keep sh*t real” moment with myself while sitting in my NYC cubicle a few months ago; why had I never given myself a chance to dive into Italian the right way? Why would I go on a month long trip backpacking and not take advantage that I’d already be in Europe to finally get that Italian-intensive language practice? So I planned 10 extra days at the end of our Eurotrip just for me and began asking everyone I knew who had contacts in Italy if I could stay with a family. After at least six awkward conversations with people asking why I would want to live in Italy with a random family, I got a yes.
The initial deal was that I would live with this family for ten days in exchange for English tutoring for their ten year old son. What really ended up happening was a lot of awkward smiling from misunderstandings, pasta eating, and me finally learning Italian.
I, solo Jo, got on three train rides that all amounted to 14 hours from Paris to Verona to meet a family of complete strangers who spoke zero English. The sweat-stains were serious at this point and of course, the DuoLingo app I was messing with on my iPhone while waiting for them to come pick me up gave my beginner status away. I did a scan of the parking lot and see my future Italian host mom Carmen walk towards me with a welcoming smile and bright red hair, loved her already. She gave me three kisses on the cheek and did a super Italian hand motion to get me into the car. Remember, zero English people, so it did not go as smoothly as what you might have imagined. Just picture me stuttering and shaking from nerves trying to cram my huge backpack in the back of their car.
All the language knowledge I had came into play during that car ride; Portuguese, Spanish, French, Google translate, and yet I was still having a hard time expressing myself without long pauses and a bunch of questions to make sure I was speaking Italian and not Spanish.
The family lived in a tiny rural town called Marmirolo with 7,000 inhabitants, that’s less than half of the people living in the puny CT town where I grew up. It took 45 minutes by car from the Verona Porta Nuova train station to the house, which is considered a short distance; I wasn’t goin’ anywhere. We drove past fields of cows and empty green space, rivers, and ancient buildings. This was exactly what I needed after NYC toxins took over my body for the last five years.
After days one, two, and three of no English escape, I felt myself starting to pick up random words and expressions that made me sound like I actually spoke some Italian. I could understand 60% of what they were saying from my other Latin languages, but I couldn’t express myself which made exhaustion a common feeling throughout the week. By day five I was thinking in basic Italian. By day seven I was making jokes in bars with groups of Italian 20somethings.
By the last day of my solo language learning trip, I knew I had to return to Italy and commit to fluency because I now saw the country in a different light. I understood the people a little better after various embarrassing, frustrating, and funny moments. When you realize your brain has the ability to learn a new language that allows you to communicate with people who experience life in a completely different way than you do, you become addicted to hearing their opinions and stories in their language; at least I know I’m an addict.